Egyptian culture has always fascinated people and, as a window into the past, mummies never cease to amaze. Through Ripley’s latest collaboration with Interspectral, the new Lost Civilization Gallery at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Orlando will be a place for visitors to virtually explore beneath the wrappings of mummies. It will enable them to study the inside of a mummified priest, as well as an Ibis bird mummy that is totally unique to this exhibition. But before we can physically unwrap history with Interspectral’s 3D-visualization technology, let’s travel back in time to ancient Egypt and the age of the mummy.
The figures are staggering. Millions of mummified ibises (hook-billed shorebirds) were sacrificed to Thoth, one of the Egyptian gods. At Saqqara, near Memphis (the ancient capital of Egypt), archaeologists have uncovered the mummies of Egyptian pharaohs and nobility along with upwards of 1.75 million mummies of African sacred ibises. These discoveries have led to plenty of questions but fewer answers.
For example, why were ibises so significant to Egyptian culture? What role did ibises play in the afterlife, and what can these mummies tell us today? Let’s unravel the history of these ancient mummies, revealing fascinating insights into ancient Egyptian culture along the way.
The Significance of Thoth to Egyptian Culture
The African ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) held sacred associations for the Egyptians, especially in relation to the god Thoth. These connotations proved so significant that depictions of Thoth in hieroglyphs often depicted him with a human body and an ibis-like head. Thoth was the Egyptian god of magic and wisdom. But his responsibilities didn’t end there.
According to the Egyptians, Thoth reigned over hieroglyphs, science, judgment, art, and the dead. Thoth also played a prominent role in maintaining the universe. Over time, depictions of the deity evolved, and he became closely associated with other roles, including the judgment of the dead.
The patron of educated scribes, Thoth was thought to help these important members of society fulfill their various administrative duties. The god also acted as the reckoner of seasons and time. The lunar disk atop his head represented the crescent moon.
The Role of the Ibis in the Afterlife
Now that we have a better understanding of the significance of Thoth in the Egyptian faith, let’s take a closer look at the role of ibis mummies in Egyptian cosmology. What role did the African sacred ibis play in the afterlife? These mummies reminded the god, Thoth, to take care of individuals as they transitioned into death and faced judgment.
These mummies also held the potential to assist the living. The desiccated birds interred in Egyptian necropolises as votive offerings were left for Thoth so that he would cure illnesses, assist with romantic troubles, and even gift the offeror with long life. Archaeologist Francisco Bosch-Puche likens offering African sacred ibis mummies in ancient Egypt to lighting candles in a Catholic church.
At the catacombs of Tuna el-Gebel, researchers have uncovered more than four million sacred ibis mummies. And more than six million of these bird mummies have been recovered in total, with sacrifice to Thoth enjoying its heyday between 450 and 250 BC. But how did Egyptians have ready access to such a massive supply of birds for these rituals?
That’s a question that researchers continue to wrestle with. One of the most popular theories is that ibises were domesticated and raised specifically for this purpose. We know this was the case with other animals used heavily for mummification and offerings such as dogs, cats, and even crocodiles. Archaeologists have discovered some of these ancient facilities, but there’s been much less in the way of evidence supporting the idea of large-scale ibis hatcheries.
Unraveling the Mystery of Ibis Mummies
But that doesn’t mean there’s no evidence of ibis domestication. Instead, it proves contradictory. As Antoaneta Roussi with National Geographic has argued, some written evidence about large-scale ibis operations does exist in historical Egyptian documents. However, a new genetic study published in the journal PLoS ONE finds that the sacrificial mummies contain birds captured in the wild.
In other words, think of the large-scale operations alluded to by Roussi as halfway houses, where captive wild birds stayed until getting harvested to make mummies. How did DNA prove the birds were wild rather than domestic? According to researchers, domestication comes with telltale genetic markers, even during relatively short periods of captivity. Why? Animals experience reduced genetic diversity. But these markers aren’t present in the mummified birds.
Recent CT scans have shown that the avian mummies received the same careful treatment as their human counterparts. For example, they had internal organs removed and embalmed so they’d function in the next world. In the case of the birds, embalmed adult gizzards contained snail shells and other evidence of last meals. These items would have been replaced during the embalming process by the mummifiers.
What’s more, Egyptians stuffed mummified body cavities with grain, kind of like packing a lunch pail for the final journey. Besides embalming and replacing the bird’s digestive organs, they also did the same with the lungs. These preparations indicate that Egyptians believed birds could travel into the afterlife with their human counterparts.
Unwrap History at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Orlando
Now at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Orlando, guests have the opportunity to, quite literally, unravel history with our latest interactive partnership with Interspectral! Curious visitors will be able to virtually explore Neswaiu, an ancient Egyptian priest whose mummified body is currently in the collection of the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm, Sweden.
Unlike many others, Neswaiu’s mummy has been resting inside his intact wrappings for more than two thousand years. It is not until recently, with the aid of Interspectral’s modern scanning and visualization technology, that we can investigate the remains of Neswaiu and his burial equipment, inside-out. This is all performed without disturbing these ancient remains!
By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com